Killing Osama bin Laden Was Bittersweet

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Is revenge sweet, or is it just awful? For many of us, it’s both, according to a new study.

By Nathan Collins

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A passerby takes pictures of headlines reporting the death of Osama Bin Laden. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

O, how sweet revenge … or so we’ve been told for centuries. In The Iliad, Achilles speaks fondly of anger and the satisfaction of killing his enemies, going so far as to fantasize about the pain of the women left behind. Yet revenge can also be painful and destructive for those seeking satisfaction—as William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus learned the hard way. So is revenge more of a happy or sad affair?

Both, according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology: Revenge truly is bittersweet.

Though revenge tragedies are a regular fixture of classical literature, Washington University psychologists Fade Eadah, Stephanie Peak, and Alan Lambert chose instead to look at a decidedly more modern tale of revenge: the assassination of Osama bin Laden. In the first of three experiments, they asked 245 online participants to read a short passage, either on the history of the Olympic Games or on bin Laden’s death at the hands of American forces in Pakistan.

“The way that people feel about any act of revenge may ultimately have consequences for the way that they respond to the ‘punishers’ in the aftermath of such retaliation.”

Next, the researchers had each person to write down how they felt about what they’d just read. Eadeh, Park, and Lambert then analyzed the participants’ writings using linguistic analysis software designed to search for words associated with both positive and negative emotions—for example, joy and satisfaction, along with despair, anger, and fear. Finally, each person reported his or her mood by stating, on five-point scales, how strongly they felt each of 25 different emotion adjectives, such as bored, happy, and irate.

As in previous studies, reading about bin Laden’s death heightened participants’ self-reported negative emotions and had little effect on positive ones, relative to reading about the Olympics. The linguistic analysis, which asked people to simply write down how they feel, revealed something more interesting: Reading about bin Laden elicited strong negative and positive responses, in roughly equal measures.

Follow-up experiments indicated that people were not simply calling to mind both positive and negative thoughts about bin Laden’s killing, but instead harbored genuinely complex positive and negative feelings about it.

Those results have important practical consequences for how we process acts of revenge, the researchers say.

“For example, the way that people feel about any act of revenge may ultimately have consequences for the way that they respond to the ‘punishers’ in the aftermath of such retaliation,” the team writes. “As scholars gain greater understanding into the affective dynamics associated with revenge, these efforts may ultimately offer some insight into how to successfully resolve such conflicts.”

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